Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Guilty Vicarage

I’ve been reading a number of mysteries lately — something about which I may have more to say later on — so I was pleased to see this post by Nick Baldock on Agatha Christie, the mystery as a genre, and Christianity. But Baldock doesn't mention the single most important essay on these themes, the one that W. H. Auden wrote for Harper’s in 1948: “The Guilty Vicarage”. Everyone should read it. Excerpt:

I can, to some degree, resist yielding to these or similar desires which tempt me, but I cannot prevent myself from having them to resist; and it is the fact that I have them which makes me feel guilty, so that instead of dreaming about indulging my desires, I dream about the removal of the guilt which I feel at their existence. This I still do, and must do, because guilt is a subjective feeling where any further step is only a reduplication–feeling guilty about my guilt. I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin. From the point of view of ethics, desires and acts are good or bad, and I must choose the good and reject the bad, but the I which makes this choice is ethically neutral; it only becomes good or bad in its choice. To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however “good” I may become, remains unchanged. As St. Paul says: “Except I had known the law, I had not known sin.”


  • Michael Straight said...

    This sort of thing is why I read your blog all the time. What a genius Auden was to be able to look at a guilty pleasure and then describe exactly, exhaustively what he likes about it, what makes the best examples so satisfying to him.

    And the ability to say "Raymond Chandler's stories are a different genre because of x,y,& z. They have a different telos." Rather than "Sherlock Holmes rules and Philip Marlowe sucks!"

    Fascinating article. And the part you quoted is, I think, very profound. In fact, that is essentially what I understand Jesus to be saying in the Sermon on the Mount when he says lust is as bad as adultery and anger as bad as murder.

    The real problem with humanity, I take Jesus to be saying, is not just that we do evil things, but that we find evil at all tempting. The fact that we are not utterly repelled by the very idea of ever hating or hurting another human being demonstrates our fundamental brokenness.

  • All my posts should just be quotes from Auden.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I'd read that blog.

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